I lost my closest friend, Carolynn, in 2009. She had fought colon cancer with her unique tough fortitude for several years and seemed to be winning. I had to be out of town for a period of time, and when I returned, something had changed. Carolynn was depressed and talking about being ready to die. Now, I wasn’t hearing any of that, and soon her attitude brightened back to its normal state, but not soon enough. As if it had only been her great positive, cancer-can’t-beat-me attitude that had been keeping it at bay, her cancer returned with a vengeance in a final onslaught she no longer had the strength to battle as she’d done for so long. It’s a loss I have never completely overcome.
But her cancer is not what I want to write about. Last night, I participated in a Twitter party to celebrate and promote the new anthology of Las Comadres, Count On Me:Tales of Sisterhood and Fierce Friendships. (Las Comadres is the wonderful group that organizes the National Latino Book Club, among many other great projects.) The talk during this Twitter party (look for its record at #lasComadres #LatinoLit) centered on the concept of comadres, the term that can include special mentors, sisters from another mister, friends of the closest stripe, etc. I ended the evening thinking of Carolynn.
Sometimes things happen in such strange ways that we feel they were meant to happen. A self-taught handspinner with both wheel and spindle, I had tried for years to connect with the local guild. No one replied to emails or snail mails. I met a rep at the Renaissance Fair who gave me an officer’s phone number. When I called, it had been disconnected. Then, suddenly, out of nowhere, someone replied to a letter sent several years earlier with the date and place of their next meeting. I attended, as did another new person who’d just moved from Cleveland to Kansas City. She asked if we could go to lunch afterward since she knew nothing about KC and wanted me to show her around a little.
Carolynn could seem brash and abrasive when you first met her, and I hesitated, not sure I wanted to get involved with this loud person. Fortunately for me, I agreed and led her to a good local restaurant. That was the beginning of a great friendship. Carolynn was without inhibitions, and sometimes she did and said things in public that could make me cringe—because I still cared what others thought and she didn’t. I soon came to see, though, that she had the biggest heart in the world and a wide-open mind thirsty for all the knowledge she could find.
Soon enough, I left the local guild because their focus was not on spinning and they assumed that all members would be suburban housewives with lots of time on their hands, a class I hardly fell into. I was there only long enough to meet Carolynn and forge an unbreakable friendship. But why did I never hear from the guild until suddenly Carolynn would be there, a new person also?
Carolynn was a serious book person and reader. Her house, like my own, was full of bookcases and books. We traded back and forth and bought each other books we knew the other craved as gifts. We talked ideas and emotions and people we loved and worried about. She was older than me and larger than me in physical body and in her presence in the world. She was a total support to me as I went through severe difficulties with my mentally ill daughter. When I was in a toxic situation as a board member for a local nonprofit, it was Carolynn who kept telling me, “You have to tell them no. You have to protect yourself.” Until it finally sank in, and I did just that. That was the wonder of our relationship—we were always completely supportive of each other and fiercely protective of each other.
She wanted desperately to stay alive until my youngest son came home from graduate school. She had always adored him and had a special relationship with Joseph. She tried to hang on, but she missed him by slightly less than two weeks. I had been accepted to Macondo and given the great honor of the Elvira Cordero Cisneros Award in those final months of her life, and she celebrated with me, as she had the acceptance and publication of my books of poetry. She said, “I love seeing your success. I feel like I’ve been working toward it myself.” And, of course, she had. When I considered postponing my trip to San Antonio for the week-long Macondo Workshop, she wouldn’t hear of it. “I’ll be doing it vicariously through you. Don’t worry. I’ll hang on. I’m not leaving without saying goodbye.” But she did. Some things are not in our control, no matter how strong we are.
I have some of her clothes that I wear often when writing. They’re big on me and comfortable, and it feels like Carolynn is right behind me when I wear them. I feel her presence often, even without the clothes. Like my beloved grandmother, Carolynn is one of the ancestral spirits who support me and guide me. Chosen family, in her case. She never got to see me win some major national awards for my poetry or the success with my novel, and she’d have been so excited and as proud as if it were her own because Carolynn was the most caring, generous person I’ve ever known. But I believe her spirit’s enjoyed it along with me. There are times I feel I could pick up the phone and call her, and I remind myself that I don’t need the phone now. Some people are so innately good that they can never truly leave us.